Gettysburg College Prof. Scott Hancock authored a piece on the Emancipation Proclamation that appeared in Sept. 16's New York Times Sunday Review, a week before the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which happened on September 22, 1862.
His piece is one of a seven-part series sponsored by Gettysburg College as we join the country in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
The full text of Hancock's piece is below.
African Americans had no friend in Lincoln
I am a revisionist historian.
Every historian is one. We can examine the same events, documents, or statistics and reach starkly different conclusions about why things happened. Disagreement and revision, however, often produce consensus.
For instance, most historians now acknowledge that slavery caused the Civil War. Sources such as South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession confirm that protecting slavery was the South’s top priority.
Likewise, there is consensus that saving the Union was the North’s primary goal. The Union did eventually make emancipation a vital secondary objective, but never wavered from its purpose of national preservation.
The Emancipation Proclamation fit within that purpose. Though typically perceived as the most important legal act for African Americans, it was for white Americans because it helped secure national preservation. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael made a similar point, declaring that “every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people.” Echoing Carmichael, this is my revision of American history.
The evidence? Lincoln’s Preliminary Proclamation, made public 150 years ago this month, left a legal loophole allowing Confederate areas that ceased rebelling to maintain slavery. Black men, women, and children would only be “forever free” in areas still rebelling on January 1, 1863. Despite the improbability of any state abandoning the Confederacy, this loophole’s purpose was to weaken the rebellion. Lincoln’s final 1863 Proclamation removed the loophole but added the phrase “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,” reemphasizing the primary goal. Freeing African Americans, though important, was absolutely secondary.
Getting our history right requires revisions, including using terms accurately. The term “Emancipation Proclamation” appears nowhere in the documents we call the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation or the Emancipation Proclamation. While Lincoln’s Proclamations were ingenious, even artistic, legal articulations that revolutionized the nation, neither document actually emancipated anybody.
This revision matters because too often emancipation is perceived as something that was done for African Americans, which connotes a gift or a grant. We often say Lincoln…or the Emancipation Proclamation…or the Union freed the slaves. That phrasing shapes political thinking. On the radio, in homes, and in classrooms, critics of social programs directed at African Americans argue that the nation has done enough for African Americans, starting with freeing them. Whatever one’s position in those debates, any argument presuming that Lincoln’s Proclamation or the sacrifices of Union troops were undertaken for African Americans relies on bad revisionist history. Lincoln’s Proclamation and the sacrifice of our nation’s citizenry did serve a crucial, nation-changing purpose, just not one initiated for African Americans.
Lincoln has been called the most significant friend African Americans have ever had. Perhaps he was the best ally. An ally may not like, respect, or care about you, but they can work effectively toward the same ends though motives may differ. Lincoln and his Proclamation are arguably the most significant allies Black people have had during our long experience on this continent. But Lincoln was no friend. And his Proclamation was no gift.
Lincoln’s Proclamation pushed the nation to the hard work of making its founding ideals a reality. Today, we best continue that work by being better allies: allies who genuinely respect one another. One hundred and fifty years later, we accomplish that in part by getting our history right. Even if it requires some revision.
Scott Hancock is an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College.
Find out more about Gettysburg College's Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War at www.gettysburg.edu/cw2013.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.